Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Esper: future US troop draw downs 'not necessarily' linked to Taliban talks

The US defence secretary's comments come a week after Donald Trump's trip to Afghanistan

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that a drawdown in US troops from Afghanistan wasn't necessarily contingent on talks with the Taliban. DoD/Lisa Ferdinando/Handout via REUTERS
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that a drawdown in US troops from Afghanistan wasn't necessarily contingent on talks with the Taliban. DoD/Lisa Ferdinando/Handout via REUTERS

Pentagon chief Mark Esper said on Monday that any future troop drawdowns in Afghanistan were "not necessarily" linked to a deal with Taliban insurgents, suggesting some lowering of force levels may happen irrespective of the ongoing peace talks.

The US defence secretary’s remarks in an interview with Reuters came after a Thanksgiving trip last week to Afghanistan by President Donald Trump, who spoke of potential troop reductions and said he believed the Taliban insurgency would agree to a ceasefire in the 18-year-old war.

Even if a ceasefire is successful, US military commanders would still focus on the threats associated with ISIS and al Qaeda militant groups in Afghanistan.

Speaking as he flew to London for a Nato summit, Mr Esper said his government had been discussing potential reductions in troop levels for some time, both internally and with Nato allies.

"I feel confident that we could reduce our numbers in Afghanistan and still ensure that place doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists who could attack the United States," Mr Esper said, without offering a figure.

"And our allies agree we can make reductions as well."

Asked whether such reductions would necessarily be contingent on some sort of agreement with the Taliban insurgency, Mr Esper said: "Not necessarily,” and did not elaborate.

The US has approximately 13,000 army personnel in Afghanistan as well as thousands of other Nato troops. American officials have said US forces could drop to 8,600 and still carry out an effective, core counter-terrorism mission as well as some limited advising for Afghan forces.

A draft accord agreed in September before peace talks collapsed would have withdrawn thousands of American troops in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.

The discussions between the two parties had been going on for nearly a year, but US President Donald Trump called them off in September after a bomb attack by the insurgents in Kabul killed at least a dozen people, including a US soldier.

Even if an agreement in salvaged, many US officials privately doubt the Taliban could be relied upon to prevent al Qaeda from again plotting attacks against the United States from Afghan soil.

The US defence secretary didn’t hint at any developments in the coming days or suggest that new troop drawdowns in Afghanistan might figure into Nato discussions this week.

About 2,400 US service members have been killed in the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded in the the 18-year-war, the longest war in American history.

Updated: December 3, 2019 05:42 AM

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